HC Deb 27 January 1969 vol 776 cc941-6
The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Edward Short)

With permission, I would like to make a statement about the Report of the Planning Committee on the Open University.

This Report is published today. The Committee's task was to work out a comprehensive plan for an Open University, and to prepare a draft charter and statutes. This it has done with great energy and skill, and I should like to pay tribute to the Committee, under its chairman, Sir Peter Venables for the effort which it has put into producing such a worth while Report.

The Government fully accept the outline plan for development set out in the Report. 1: will now be for the university authority, as an autonomous and completely independent institution, to carry the project forward, and in this it can count on the support of the Government.

Preparations are now going ahead on the basis that the university authority will be set up within the next few months; that student enrolments will begin in the autumn of 1970; and that courses, including broadcasts on radio and B.B.C. 2, correspondence tuition, and tutorials at local study centres, will start in January, 1971.

The B.B.C. will work as educational partners with the university, and I should like to pay tribute to the Corporation for the support and co-operation which it has shown in the planning of the Open University.

Finally, I should like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the "Minister of State for the Arts" for the energetic and imaginative way in which she has carried this project forward.

Sir E. Boyle

We would, of course, endorse the right hon. Gentleman's personal acknowledgement of the work of the Planning Committee and its Chairman, whose Report sets out a project embracing interesting experiments in the use of broadcasting for educational purposes and in the development of part-time degree courses, with both of which objectives we on these benches are very much in sympathy. But is it not a fact that this proposal comes at a time when resources for essential educational tasks are more severely stretched than in any year since the war?

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that it makes sense for him to commit himself to funds of about an annual rate of £3.7 million, as mentioned in the Report, particularly as this Report may well suggest techniques and innovations that could be adopted more efficiently and less expensively by existing institutions providing part-time degree courses and other forms of adult education?

Mr. Short

I certainly can justify this expenditure. The expenditure this year will be about £0.4 million, next year about £1.25 million, and the following year about £3.75 million, but in that year there will be considerable income for the university as well.

There are a great many gaps in our provision for higher education. A great many people missed the boat. Many people, teachers and others, wish to obtain additional qualifications and I am sure that this innovation will give them the assistance they require. Also, it will make a considerable impact on teaching in higher education, and in further education generally.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us believe that the Opposition will repent of their very peevish and churlish attitude? Is he also aware that this project would pay for itself if it develops the educational technology which it will be able to provide and which no other organisation in this country is providing at the moment?

Mr. Short

My hon. Friend has made two very important points. I estimate that in a few years' time income may well balance expenditure in this institution. The second point is the one that I made earlier. It is tremendously important that in developing new techniques and new programming for learning at higher levels this institution may well, and I think will, have a considerable impact on teaching generally at this level.

Mr. Pardoe

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Liberal Party will certainly welcome his statement? We feel that the expenditure will be more than justified.

May I, however, ask the right hon. Gentleman a question relating to further education and part-time education generally? Will he say what research he has done in conjunction with this Committee to ensure that the part-time education he has mentioned will be available not only from this open university, but much more generally available in the country?

Mr. Short

How the university uses its recorded programmes, and so on, is a matter for the university. I am sure that a great deal of use will be made of them, but this is a matter for the university entirely.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this project is likely to cost, so far as I have quickly calculated, one-tenth of the cost of a Polaris submarine, and that it is likely to be much more useful?

Mr. Short

It is very important to get the expenditure into perspective. Next year, as I said, it will be £1.25 million against a total expenditure of well over £2,000 million next year on education.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

Could the right hon. Gentleman be a little more specific about the groups of people he expects to benefit from these degrees? In particular, is it his intention that this shall be offered as an alternative to the excess of young people who qualify for university degree courses and who may not be able to get into some institutions; and secondly, will the taking of a degree in the open university entitle a person thereby to become a graduate teacher with a graduate's allowance?

Mr. Short

To take the last point first, the open university degrees will be equivalent to degrees from any other university.

On the first point, whatever provision we make, there will always be people who, for one reason or another, missed the boat educationally in their youth. This organisation will provide for them, among others.

Mr. Gordon Walker

While welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement and noting that had the Opposition been in office this project would not have been launched, could my right hon. Friend tell me whether the money for this university will come from the University Grants Committee or direct from his Department?

Mr. Short

So far as we can see in the years ahead it will come directly from my Department. There are important differences in financing here which, perhaps, we can develop on another occasion, but I feel that it is more appropriate that it should be financed directly from the Department than through the U.G.C.

Mr. Hornby

Will the right hon. Gentleman say in which year he imagines the income will balance expenditure?

Mr. Short

Of course I cannot, because we cannot say what the income will be. The students will pay fees, but there will be considerable receipts from the sale of textbooks, tapes, and so on. I hope, also, that when the university gets going it will be able to make a major contribution towards the development of education in developing countries.

Mr. Dalyell

Is guidance being given on an age of entry limit to the open university?

Mr. Short

No, there are no upper limits at all on the ages of entry.

Mr. Lane

While I am in sympathy with the idea of the project, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that if the financial stringency continues as acute as it is now, and if he insists on going ahead with the time scale that he indicated, many people will feel, "Here is another example of the Government getting their priorities wrong"?

Mr. Short

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means about financial stringency in education.

Sir E. Boyle


Mr. Short

The right hon. Gentleman says "Oh". The school building programme is more than twice what it was when he was in my place, and next year, on current expenditure, expenditure will be well over £100 million more than in this year.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that he has got his priorities right when this afternoon, because of the Government's economic squeeze, Warwickshire County Education Committee has before it a proposal to sack over 300 helpers in primary schools?

Mr. Short

That is another matter, but I am watching very carefully what the Warwickshire local authority does about the employment of teachers for whom the local authority has been given the money.

I certainly think that the priority is right to deal first with those people who have been deprived in their youth.

Sir Knox Cunningham

If, as the right hon. Gentleman says, the finance will come direct from the Ministry, does this mean that this university will be controlled by the Ministry?

Mr. Short

Not at all. I pointed out in my statement that the university has applied for a charter. The notice appeared in the London Gazette on 3rd January. I hope that Her Majesty will grant it a charter early this spring. It will then be a completely autonomous body in the same way as any other university in the United Kingdom.